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New BlackBerry, Android upgrade play catch-up with Apple

A few weeks ago, the big news in the smartphone world was that Apple set the world right by agreeing to give away free cases to iPhone 4 users to prevent them from touching a crack in the phone’s antenna which could lower call quality. This week, we’re hearing from the other camps.

Research in Motion, the Canadian company that makes the BlackBerry on Tuesday announced a new model designed to compete with the iPhone and phones running Google’s Android operating system. The BlackBerry Torch is RIM’s first phone with a true touch-screen interface, similar to iPhone and Android phones. As the first phone to use the new BlackBerry 6 operating system, it even comes with a web browser that lets you use two fingers to “pinch” the screen to zoom in and out.

The Torch has a new media player, enhanced media synchronization and “universal search” which means that a single search tool can be used to find anything on your phone or on the web including contacts, apps, personal data and websites.

The phone also comes configured with BlackBerry’s “App World,” which is RIM’s answer to the Apple App store and Google’s Android Marketplace.

The hardware isn’t as impressive as some smartphones. The 3.2 inch (360 by 480 pixel) screen is tiny compared to the 4.3 inch screen on Sprint’s HTC Evo 4G and Verizon’s Motorola Droid X, and while the Torch’s 5 megapixel camera is more than adequate for photos that are likely to be viewed on screen and not

printed, it’s not quite as impressive at the Evo’s 8 megapixel camera. Of course, the Torch is a bit smaller than those gargantuan phones from Motorola and HTC which will be a real plus for some.

The new BlackBerry also has an optical trackpad that you can use in addition to the touch-screen to move about. And because it has a slide-out physical keyboard, users of older BlackBerry devices should be able to get up to speed quickly.

The new Torch goes on sale at AT&T stores on Aug. 12th. Like most smartphones, it will cost $199 for those willing to sign a 2-year contract. Right now, AT&T is the exclusive carrier for the phone but I’m pretty sure that RIM will bring out similar phones for other carriers within a few months.

If you plan to spend much time in Saudi Arabia or United Arab Emirates, you might consider not taking the Torch or any other BlackBerry. Both countries have said that they plan to ban the use of BlackBerry messaging and web browsing for “security reasons” because the data is encrypted and processed outside of their borders. “Security,” I think, is a generic term to mean that the countries won’t be able to spy as easily on people who use the phones. There is some speculation that India and Bahrain could be next in banning the use of these functions.

Another development this week is that the latest version of Google’s Android operating system called “Froyo” (officially Android 2.2) is beginning to roll out to users of the HTC Evo and is slated to soon be available for Motorola Droid and Droid X. I downloaded Froyo to the HTC Evo and didn’t notice any major changes in the interface, but the phone does feel a bit faster now; plus it now has the ability to display Flash video. The improved speed is the result of a new compiler which, according to Google, improves performance by “2-5 x” compared to Android 2.1.

There are also improvements to the camera app with a new user interface to make it easier to zoom or control the flash as well as an easier way to zoom images.

The new version also supports the ability to turn some Android phones into a portable hotspot so that you can use the phone’s cellular data connection to provide Wi-Fi for up to eight devices (depending on the phone).

With recent upgrades from RIM, Apple and Android, the only major smartphone platform left to upgrade is Windows Mobile. And for that, we have to wait only a few months. In February, Microsoft announced that it has completely overhauling its mobile operating system with plans to ship the new Windows Mobile 7 sometime before this year’s holiday season.

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